Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Parliament: Protection from Harrassment Bill (Pritam Singh) – 13 March 2014

Mdm Speaker, in the middle of 2013, the Government introduced a new licensing regime that sought to align online media platforms with the regime that governed mainstream media licensing. In the second half of 2013, there was a concern that the Government was going to draw up laws to address online accountability, a prospect which was met with alarm by many Singaporeans. There was a very real concern that legitimate criticism and fair comment, even if made anonymously, and the websites which hosted such content, were the real target of new laws that were being considered by the Government.

I am wary of any attempts, either legislative or non-legislative, to tinker with online commentary for the principal reason that it remains one of the most important nation-building platforms for a free ranging debate by members of the public without censorship, be it anonymously or otherwise. This is especially in view of the significant power of the mainstream media in determining the contours and the content of public discourse, and the out-of-bound markers it has to operate within.

In the main, the Bill deals with harassment per se and seeks to harmonise our laws pertaining to harassment into an omnibus regime by re-enacting sections 13A(2) to 13B of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, and introducing a new law against unlawful stalking, amongst others.

After this Bill was tabled on 3 March 2014 and scrutinised, I am considerably less disturbed by the prospect of the Bill serving as an impediment to legitimate criticism and as a backdoor mechanism to curtail freedom of expression online for three reasons.

Firstly, section 15 of the Bill on false statement of facts which is of immediate interest to netizens, serves to remind Singaporeans that, whether anonymously or otherwise, a basic level of responsibility must be exercised when comments about any person, either online or offline, are made. This is a legitimate expectation of the law.

Secondly, the courts are granted with the powers to assess whether it is just and equitable for any party to make offending harassing statements of fact on a balance of probabilities. In tandem, the powers of the court are drafted to order the cessation or correct the publication of such false statements of fact.

Finally, the Bill does not operate to prohibit anonymous postings, even if the individuals behind the posts are subject to the Act, and rightfully so.

One of the more common questions about the Bill is how harassment is defined. While the new illustrations in the Bill from the re-enacted sections under the MOA are helpful in giving examples of what constitutes harassment, the Bill has taken a broad approach and continues in the direction of the MOA, with the precise contours of harassment left to the courts to determine.

In view of rapidly changing technologies and the possible subjectivity of what constitutes harassment, this is a reasonable position, as it allows a court to assess not just what could be defined as harassment but the effect of such conduct as well. This is important as exemplified in the case of Chee Siok Chin and others vs Minister for Home Affairs, where Justice Rajah, as he was then, held:

“Caution, of course, has to be exercised in the employment of subsection 13A and 13B of the Miscellaneous Offences Act. They will often involve issues of acute factual inquiry coupled with the delicate calibration of conduct. Imprecise lines will have to be drawn between boisterous and abusive conduct; between freedom of expression and insulting or abusive conduct; between freedom of assembly and harassment. It cannot be gainsaid that there can be a point where legitimate conduct may cross the Rubicon and become harassment. This will always be a matter of degree and the actual concatenation of circumstances.”

It is evident that the application of sections 3 and 4 of the Bill that cover intentionally causing harassment, alarm or distress; and harassment, alarm and distress respectively, may not be so straightforward to apply in practice, notwithstanding egregious conduct. For this reason, I hope prudence is the guiding principle of the authorities in the exercise of its powers under this Bill and I welcome the Minister’s remarks that the strong arm of the law will be employed only in egregious cases.

On definitions, I seek some clarification whether “persons”, as used in the Bill, is to be broadly read to include corporate entities as under section 2 of the Interpretation Act or whether our courts will be left to determine this point. I ask this as there is case law from the UK, which in applying the UK Protection from Harassment Act, ruling that on a proper construction of the term “person”, the Act does not embrace a corporate entity.

I wanted to ask the Minister what were the thought processes of the Ministry that led to a change in the maximum sentences under the MOA covering the new sections 3, 4, 5 and 6, but I note from the Minister that this was partly in response to the feedback from the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Conference on Harassment and public opinion on this point.

But I do note that with regard to the relevant provisions under the MOA and the sentences of the sections under this Bill, section 41 of the Criminal Procedure Code already provides additional legislative muscle to address violators of sections 3, 4, 5 and 6 of the Bill through the execution of a bond proportionate to an accused person’s means, with or without sureties, for a period not exceeding two years.

Mdm Speaker, the illustrations to a number of sections in the Bill cover the acts of school children with section 4 and 7 featuring prominently. It is evident that the Bill was drafted to also address the issue of bullying in schools. Research by the Singapore Children’s Society in 2006 and 2007 on school students revealed that bullying is not infrequent, with about one in four secondary school students and one in five primary school pupils having been bullied by their peers.

In a previous parliamentary reply to the hon Nominated Member of Parliament Mr Laurence Lien, the Senior Minister of State for Education replied that schools educate students on bullying through the formal curriculum as well as school-based programmes, and students are also taught skills to handle challenging situations. The new Character and Citizenship Education curriculum also teaches students to report cases, seek help and to care for others. Anti-bullying awareness programmes, organised in many schools, empower students to help themselves and support their peers who are bullied.

While I applaud these efforts, I would like to ask the Minister if these initiatives are applied with equal vigour across all schools. I ask this question not to knock these initiatives but to state my opinion that bullying in both the real and online world, is best addressed through sustained and aggressive educational efforts both at home and in schools. It is my view that hard law will not succeed in altering norms and behaviour among school-children as compared to sustained education efforts in schools where each student knows how to respond to cases of bullying and harassment instead of being overcome with feelings of guilt and suffering in silence. In the converse, education should also allow students to instinctively identify when his/her conduct is unbecoming and causing distress to someone else.

While I acknowledge the work done by MOE and other groups in this regard, in the main, I do hope we can address the issue of bullying in schools outside the legal domain, with this Bill employed as a last resort on students who are at a stage in their life where mistakes are made and poor judgment is exercised, a reflection of youthful folly.

Section 7 of the Bill covering unlawful stalking is probably the most challenging area as it breaks new legislative ground and is potentially open to much interpretation when applied. Section 7(3), which lists examples of acts or omissions associated with stalking are generally identical to section 111 of the UK Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 which explicitly added new sections on stalking to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

The potentially problematic nature of a stalking law has been seen in the application of the UK Protection from Harassment Act, which created an offence of “pursuing a “course of conduct” which amounts to harassment of another. For example, a UK newspaper reported that in 2001, the UK Protection from Harassment Act was employed to prosecute protestors outside a US base who were deemed to have distressed American servicemen by holding up a placard that said “George W Bush? Oh dear!”

In 2004, police in Kent arrested a woman under the Act for sending two emails to an executive at a drugs company begging him not to test his products on animals, and in 2007, the residents of a village in Oxfordshire were injuncted from protesting against a power company’s plan to fill their lake with ash, in case they caused alarm or distress to the company’s big-sized security guards. In fact, anti-stalking laws may conceivably be used against political activists, market researchers and religious organisations, especially if individuals or organisations are not fully appraised of the meaning of “course of conduct”, as established by section 7(10) of the Bill.

Mdm Speaker, while these examples are extreme and perhaps fleeting, it is not too far-fetched to imagine section 7 of the Bill being used for purposes that stretch Parliament’s intent, far beyond the illustrations provided in section 7 of the Bill, which have to do with an individual repeatedly sending emails, flowers and circulating revealing photographs, notwithstanding the Minister’s point that the illustrations are only some examples of the wide application of the Bill.

While this issue does not offer straightforward solutions, the point remains that the law against unlawful stalking may also find itself to be a victim of unintended consequences. I would like to seek the Minister’s assurance that this Bill will not be used for such purposes.

In fact, it is not too difficult to envisage a wide range of situations in the local context. I remember visiting a wake at my ward in late 2011 over a period of time when there was a spike in the number of deaths at the Bedok Reservoir, with the media wondering why this was so. In my case, the family of the deceased was rather distressed that some journalists were keeping a watching brief of the number of people who came and left the wake before approaching them for a sound bite. By “watching brief”, I also mean hiding behind pillars and taking active steps to avoid detection. This information inevitably made its way back to the distressed family, and as the law is drafted, would the Minister comment on the possible employment of section 7 against journalists and investigative reporters?

Section 7 of the Bill makes the offence of unlawful stalking subject to reasonableness. However, this is likely to be a challenging moral and ethical exercise made even more challenging by a lower standard of proof in civil matters. I am concerned that the Bill may be subject to abuse, especially by individuals who seek to use the law as a weapon, as seen by the UK examples and, on the other extreme, for illegitimate reasons, like avoiding or strategically delaying public scrutiny which some journalists or bloggers may seek to pursue.

Finally, while I do believe the law is a positive step forward in terms of putting a symbolic focus on harassment and society’s abhorrence of such behaviour, I do query what the effect of the law is on alternative dispute resolution means, such as community mediation, especially in the case of neighbour disputes, and separately, the number of prosecutions and civil cases with the passage of this Bill.

I do understand from the Minister of Culture, Community and Youth during the Committee of Supply this week and comments published in the mainstream media on the 9th of March that a new tribunal may be set up in the second half of the year with powers to issue orders to disputing neighbours, an added recourse for aggrieved individuals from the current community dispute resolution system which is wholly voluntary.

Nonetheless, I hope this Bill will encourage businesses and schools to draw up dedicated anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies and procedures so that employers, employees and students are clear on the general boundaries of personal conduct, both online and offline, rather than resort to the law at the get-go.

Schools in particular can take some reference from Oxford University’s Policy and Procedure on Harassment and Bullying, while the Tripartite Alliance on Fair Employment Practices could look at advising employers on the importance of such policies. Employers in particular should be minded to draw up these policies in view of the diversity of Singapore population and our privileged position as a meeting point between East and West and the different cultural values that intersect at the workplace, where a hug or a pat on the shoulder may be misinterpreted by some employees, intentionally or otherwise, as sexual harassment.

Finally, I welcome the clarification of this Bill on the law covering harassment in Singapore in view of the case in AXA Insurance. Mdm Speaker, my concerns about the potentially wide-ranging application of section 7 notwithstanding, I support the Bill.

Written by singapore 2025

13/03/2014 at 8:27 am

Posted in Parliament

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